Do you remember how old you were when you learned about the five senses? I believe it was an elementary school teacher who taught me that there are five senses. The sense of smell. The sense of sight. The sense of sound. The sense of touch. The sense of taste. As humans, we are constantly smelling, seeing, hearing, engaging our tactile environment, and tasting.
The senses perceive what is happening to us and around us. The senses differentiate between pleasing and displeasing. The senses are automatic and involuntary. They sense without our permission and it would be difficult to convince a certain sense that something is pleasing that is initially interpreted as displeasing.
As an adult, I’ve come to think of my thought process as my sixth sense. As my nose smells, my mind thinks. As my eyes see, my mind wanders. If my taste buds were meant to process and appreciate flavor, my brain was meant to process and cultivate thought.
On a summer day, my nose may pick up the smell of freshly cut grass or a waft of intoxicating lilacs blooming next door. I turn my head to breathe deep and cherish the feeling of warmth and grace that accompany the scent. I have strong memories of the smells of New York City from spending time there as a child. Hot, rancid air blew forcefully in spurts or seeped upward through the grates in the streets and assaulted my nose. I quickly protected myself from the smell and the sense of human decay that accompanied the scent. I learned to hold my breath and plug my nose if I anticipated that a particular grate would excrete that unforgettable smell.
I avoid foul tastes, burning surfaces, loud and alarming noises, and staring directly at the sun. I respect the initial interpretation of my senses and move toward the pleasing and away from the displeasing. While my senses are part of me, they do not define me. They are part of my fascinating and sophisticated biology – but they are not ME.
I’m trying to learn that the same is true for my thoughts. Thoughts float across the blank landscape of my mind without my permission. All kinds of thoughts — Loving thoughts, disturbing thoughts, negative thoughts. Sometimes I think things that I know I don’t really think. My thoughts are often involuntary. My thoughts spiral and chase unlikely ends. That’s the mind’s job… to think. As a human, I can even think about my thoughts. I can have three layers of thought going on simultaneously. Let’s just say I have a very developed sense of thought!
If I smell my child’s freshly washed skin, I want to hold her close and live in the moment of peace and love and gratitude. If I change a particularly horrific dirty diaper, I want to wrap that sucker up and get it to the outside garbage bin immediately. I don’t linger on a horrible smell.
When I think that I’m good and lovable and talented and strong, I blast past those thoughts and suppress or dismiss them. When I think that maybe I’m no good and nobody loves me and I suck, I tend to stay there, to linger.
In sensing, I move away from the displeasing except where my thoughts are concerned. I ruminate. I sit with a sad or negative thought and let it spin me out. I have an obsessive mind that grabs that negative thought and keeps rethinking it and drinking it in. I give it weight. I let the thought make me think it’s true. I let my thoughts define me.
Rumination (re-thinking the thought ad nauseam) is the equivalent of walking out the back door, down the path to the outside trash bin, opening the bin, digging out that horrific diaper, opening the bag it’s in, unwrapping the diaper, exposing the poop, and breathing deep despite the bad smell. Lingering on a negative thought is the equivalent of sniffing that diaper in the back alley.
It’s like thinking that because I smelled a bad smell I must be less than or gross. It’s like believing that because my hand can feel pain when I touch a hot stove that I deserve pain or that I am pain! And that because I thought the thought, that I must keep thinking the thought.
The moral of the story… Don’t keep smelling the dirty diaper. Don’t ruminate on displeasing thoughts. Hold each thought momentarily and then let it go.